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An old fuel may be in Norwich's future

By Arielle Eaton
On March 9, 2012


Norwich University is going back to the future, researching modern use of an ancient heat source as it considers a proposal to build a biomass wood chip plant to heat the campus.

David Magida, chief administrative officer at Norwich, is leading a team looking at the proposed project, its cost and efficiency before it is presented to the board of trustees for possible approval or further research.

Bizhan Yahyazadeh, the Norwich director of facility operations, says burning wood for heat is an ancient concept that has been revolutionized by modern technology to make the process more efficient. 

While the potential conversion to biomass heating has only recently been approved for further research, the university's dependency on expensive fuel oil has been a concern for a long time. "For many years we have been looking for some way to provide a fuel other than just fuel oil," Magida said. "We have been looking at burning wood chips several times in the past, but the economics of it did not work."

According to his research thus far, that may be changing. A number of "significant changes" have occurred, such as the soaring price of fuel over the past few years. So Norwich officials have taken to looking again at building a wood-chip fueled heating plant.  "The price of fuel oil has gone up dramatically," Magida said, "and the price of wood chips has not gone up at the same level."

Magida highlights three important benefits that could come from a biomass-fired heating system: cost efficiency, sustainability, and the support for the local economy and environment.

According to Magida, the cost-efficiency of wood chips has shifted favorably over the past two years.  Provided these costs maintain their favorability, the plant will produce "substantial savings" over time.

Proposed in blueprints to be sited adjacent to the central power plant behind Gerard Hall, the facility will heat the buildings and water of the entire campus, according to Magida.  It will also include a storage unit to house the wood chips that will fuel the plant.

Barry Bernstein, co-owner of Better World Energy in Calais, Vt., is working with a design team and Magida to map out the proposed biomass system.  Thus far in the proposal's development, Norwich will require two boilers and a storage unit to hold approximately 200 tons of wood chips, according to Bernstein.

As a part of the research process, Magida has worked with architects, engineers, Norwich facilities operations, and Lauren Wobby, the chief financial officer.

 "I've had the occasion more than once to meet with Dave Magida and to try to lend my support around trying to develop the economics of it, and what it might look like for the institution" Wobby said.

"It is not an insignificant expense," Wobby explained of her assessment thus far of the biomass project. "But preliminary conversations around potential savings, and our ability to reduce our reliance on oil, are all very compelling."

At this point, though, she cautioned,  "it is still very much in its discussion stages," noting that a key consideration and consistent goal is that Norwich has to operate within a budget.  "We are still many, many steps before presenting it to the board for consideration.  But as we continue to get more information and it develops, it continues to hold our enthusiasm and interest." 

Wobby compares pinning down the price range to buying a car. "Are you getting a Yugo or are you getting the Mercedes?"

However, while there is a big capital cost to build the plant, the project will pay for itself over time in savings.  "(A wood chip plant) could heat the school for about a third less than what fuel would cost," Bernstein said.

The ability to store wood chips and receive a supply locally is also a major benefit.  "If there was a major disruption to the fuel oil supply we would perhaps have to shut down the university," Magida said.  "If we could not get the oil for many days in the middle of winter, we do not have an alternative."

The benefit of the biomass project for the environment is significant, according to Yahyazadeh. "It is a great project," Yahyazadeh said. "It has the most important benefit to the environment: it has less air pollution."

The Number 6 fuel oil Norwich currently uses contains more sulfur than wood, which causes a higher amount of air pollution, according to Yahyazadeh.

The efficiency and practicality of biomass energy depends on a number of factors, according to experts such as Cecilia Danks, an associate professor at the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources at the University of Vermont (UVM).

UVM, according to Danks, is looking into ways to run the institution more sustainably.  Amid researching the efficiency of buying local food products and saving power, the use of biomass energy was also recently looked into by UVM.

"What they decided was that, given our physical plant and our infrastructure, that it would be too costly and not energy-efficient at this point to put in a wood biomass system," Danks said.  "The scale didn't work with the layout of what we have and what our needs are."

Due to the layout of the main power plant in relation to the academic building and the dormitories, a biomass plant would not be an effective heating system for UVM.  "We would not be able to get the heat where we need it to go," Danks said.

UVM has multiple, widespread campuses and many of the buildings are heated through individual furnaces, according to Danks.

Danks compared UVM to Middlebury College, which is more "compact" and suitable for a biomass plant.  "It has to do with infrastructure and also with underground pipes between the buildings," she said.

Middlebury College recently fired up a new $12 million biomass gasification boiler, which is anticipated to cut the college's carbon dioxide emissions by an impressive 40 percent, or 12,500 metric tons, and cut its No. 6 fuel oil consumption in half, according to the college.

 Danks has been involved in two major projects studying the efficiency of biomass energy in separate Vermont communities.  She studied how much wood biomass grows in the local area, and the effect on the local economy by purchasing local wood. 

In her studies, Danks found that using local wood may not necessarily be dependably sustainable.  "One of the things that we were finding was that a lot of people assume that wood biomass energy is naturally sustainable," Danks said; "but, it really depends on where the source is."

According to Danks, having a few institutions use biomass plants in Vermont would not be detrimental to the forest resource, however a high number would.  "I think very much the issue is if everybody decides to (use biomass)," Danks said. 

The difference in the needs of various institutions also plays a large part in the sustainability of the local forests, according to Danks.

"So it's hard to say, certainly I think if everybody switches to wood biomass at once then it would definitely be a problem," Danks said.  "But whether certain institutions can do it (is plausible).  Right now we are certainly within the growth capacity of our forests."

 Norman Etkins, the director of the school energy management program for the Vermont Superintendent's Association, said that Vermont's forest growth has been increasing over time, so the ability to supply wood chips locally for schools and smaller institutions would not greatly impact the forest resource.

"Obviously if a lot more systems came on-line, especially big power plants, then it would be an issue," saidEtkins, who oversees the 43 middle schools and high schools across the state that are using biomass energy.  "But, with the kind of application we're talking about with the school systems, it would have a positive effect on the forest because it allows for better forest management." 

However, in her studies Danks has found that Vermont's current sustainability is partially the result of the use of wood chips harvested out-of-state. The issue is that local loggers have difficulty buying the equipment to provide "clean chips" required by most institutions. 

"We're also harvesting wood from other states (that are) contributing to Vermont's wood supply," Danks said. "It ends up requiring a pretty big capacity (for the loggers)."

On the other hand, Norwich's fuel oil supply is currently purchased through suppliers that get oil from unknown sources outside of the U.S., Magida pointed out, The ability to keep the fuel supply as local as possible to support the Vermont economy and avoid any interruption in supply is a consideration in the research conducted.

While the initial review of the proposed plant is favorable, according to Magida, it has not yet been approved by the Norwich Board of Trustees and remains on the drawing board for now.  "This is not a go-ahead idea,"Magida said. "We are still in the evaluation stage."

For the biomass plant idea to move ahead, the Norwich Board of Trustees must approve the plans being drawn up.  "For all the projects of this magnitude we always have to involve the trustees and want to get their good input and advice," Magida explained.

This is not the only environmentally conscious project to be evaluated by Norwich.  Since the beginning of the nationwide "going green" movement, stated Yahyazadeh, Norwich has supported recycling on campus, has pushed to use eco-friendly products when available, and adopted or approved many other environmentally oriented changes.   

According to Yahyazadeh, the university is constantly looking for ways to go "green" whenever possible on the campus.  

 "So, all-in-all, it is a great thing to do for the environment, for cost savings, and to support the state and local contractor," Yahyazadeh said.

The biomass project's plan and cost estimates will be compiled, according to Wobby, and then reviewed by the board when it meets in April.  The board may then choose to approve it, reject it, or ask for more research and evaluation, Wobby said.

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